The Forgotten Message of Nolan’s Batman Series

11 Oct

 

(WARNING, CONTAINS SPOILERS TO EVERY SINGLE MOVIE YOU HAVEN’T SEEN)

 

It’s been two and a half months since the awful events of July 20th in Colorado. I suspect that there were many who followed the story in the successive weeks in a way similar to me—with reserve when approaching the subtext or outright claims of the media, with a careful mental tally of the damage done out of a seriousness towards what happened and respect for the victims, and with curiosity concerning the roots of the criminal’s motive.

Also, if you were anything like me, you felt immediate revulsion when reviewing the thematic makeup of the event; an unavoidable thematic makeup to review in light of the event itself and how the said criminal carried out his plan. We’ve all heard the details: the ‘emotionless,’ ‘confused,’ ‘dazed,’ ‘uncommunicative’ James Holmes with dyed-orange hair sitting in court, avoiding the eyes of the judge and the victim’s family members. We all heard from the officers who said that James called himself ‘The Joker.’

We all heard how many copycats were stopped all over the country in the following weeks as well, along with the threats, half-threats and close calls—each with some thematic tie to the batman mythology, the most popular thematic tie being The Joker. He seemed to be the character that most of the suspects identified with.

Now, in order to steer-clear of anything that may resemble a now inappropriate celebration of The Joker—which, since the 2008 release of Nolan’s The Dark Knight has, among fans, taken form precisely in their fascination with the darkness of the character—I feel the need to strip the darkness of this curiosity in the face of the much woollier curiosity of the often overlooked positive themes in Nolan’s series (which is a trilogy comprised of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises.)

Long after the release of The Dark Knight The Joker’s scarred, menacing face appeared on T-shirts, sometimes with his more (I suppose) thought-provoking quotes from the movie, as if we were meant to see him, even in his violence, as some sort prophet from the underground. Many people used The Joker as their profile picture on various social networking sites and forums, as if to say ‘I’m subversive,’ though it could also have said, ‘I was gonna do Charles Manson, but, just as well.’

Much has been said about the surprising and dynamic performance of Heath Ledger in his role as The Joker. Delivering us one-part Hannibal Lector and three-parts Tom Waits, Ledger graduated himself from hunky pretty-boy to the only villain in recent history who doesn’t resort to such winning pieces of writing as ‘Say goodnight, Spider Man!’ or ‘You can run but you can’t hide, Iron Man!’ and who doesn’t sit around arbitrarily explaining his master-plan to a tied-up hero, giving time for the hero to escape from his binds. His character is sociopathic, amusing, playful, sick, and impossible to pin down. One may recall the several different conflicting stories The Joker gives as to how he got his scars.

With that said, one may see an inevitability concerning The Joker’s celebrity when paired with the just-okay performance of Christian Bale as Batman—a character who seems perpetually distracted by the lighting of the set until the character Rachel appears on screen. (Luckily Bale steps his performance up a few notches in ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’) It’s hard to revere such a self-serious character when on screen next to a character who doesn’t take much of anything seriously at all and who accidentally ends up being an antonym to perhaps more than the movie intended him to be. The Joker became, for his audience, a symbol of chaos, deliberate distortion and power in the form of playfulness.

Because of The Joker’s screen time, we often overlook the potentially more frightening character—Harvey Dent (Two Face). If there is anything that violent theocracies have taught us throughout history, it is that the greatest acts of evil are often committed with a sense of conviction. Those committing the acts always believe that what they are doing is right. This is precisely where The Dark Knight ends. We spend the whole film rooting for Dent as he allies himself with Batman and Commissioner Gordon to clean the city up, only to see him switch abruptly into a menacing deterministic judge at the film’s climax, distressed by the death of his girlfriend and by his own disfigurement (both The Joker’s fault).

There’s a messianic thread in the last two films of Nolan’s trilogy. When Harvey Dent turns out to be a pretty bad guy—threatening to kill Commissioner Gordon’s son—it’s inevitable that batman would whack him. To keep the symbol of hope alive that Dent, Gotham’s ‘white night,’ represented, Batman convinces Commissioner Gordon to tell the public that he [Batman] murdered Dent, diverting the attention of the police. This theme goes to the next extreme when in the following and final film, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman flies a nuclear bomb out over the ocean before it detonates over the city of Gotham.

Under this extreme refinement of good versus evil is a more complex character in Bruce Wayne. The murder of his parents when he was only a child caused him to become a masked vigilante and take on criminals. While doing good in the long run for others, he keeps this drive going by constantly dragging that pain back into his life and focusing on it. In Batman Begins, we see the sacrifice Wayne makes in taking up such a life for his cause. He has to pretend to be a jerky playboy so that his ‘other side’ can continue to do good at night. In The Dark Knight, we first a get a sense that Wayne foresees if not simply desires a day when being Batman is no longer necessary. In The Dark Knight Rises, batman is pushed to his final emotive conclusion: that one could only hope to counter the greatest possible danger with the most extreme act of selflessness. For Batman to exist as a symbol, he has to put himself right between the dichotomy of good and evil, aware all the while of the moral gray areas involved in accomplishing good—thus the reason for anonymity behind a mask. In The Dark Knight, The Joker warns a group of criminals that batman has no areas of jurisdiction and that they would not be safe. In other words, Batman has chosen ‘goodness’ instead of rules.

This is not a call for people to become masked vigilantes (though it would certainly make the world a little more interesting). But I do think that, in light of Nolan’s complex interpretation of goodness, it is sad that people find more provocative the characters who destroy very much without replacing it with anything. The character Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, while an amusing character, is not as complex in his drives. He seems to be all about power, though he hides behind a veil of liberation. He wants to destroy Gotham and we’re never really sure why at the end of the day. He just carries out this goal in an amusing way with a funny-sounding voice.

If there is one thing that the villains of the latter two films have in common, it is that their final aim is the destruction of what is common. Some of the things they want to destroy might be worth destroying—thus their appeal—but much of it is just adjacent to what is worth destroying, or fixed immediately around it. If there is a common characteristic that one can glean from these two and others like them, whether the characters are real or imagined, it is that their solution to the investigation of their problems stop at the destructive element. How does this happen? They’re obviously not stupid. They think they’re doing something good, or at least, doing something ‘free.’ I think one might be able to trace it to their reaction to their own impulses and drives. They are reactionaries, not merely politically or socially, but in a biological sense. Whatever excites their blood, interests them or impassions them becomes important because of its effect, resulting in the fetishization of perceptions where they relate to sensations of power. This becomes important to them, addictive and endless. Of course, being chemically imbalanced complicates this as do all kinds of social conditions which would be too lengthy to get into here.

My point is that the characters who dive headlong into their passions—the villains—become provocative on the surface because of their major effects. It takes longer not to stop at mere sensations in order to form a conclusion, which is what heroes do. This is why there are so few heroes; it takes longer to be one. It takes a more rigorous study of situations and a more dedicated partiality to a goodness that exists beyond the mere drives and impulses which, if embraced to the extreme, result only in a solipsistic destruction. One could say that the extremes of evil are only attractive because they are an eventuation of impulses that could be called, in their milder stages, ‘complacency.’ Perhaps people are attracted to big gestures of destruction because they don’t want to be reminded of the difficulty—or their inability—to stop, to wait, and to watch. The mindset of evil doesn’t allow itself the sobriety of reason but continually drinks from the wines of immediate passion. The most successful evils form dogmas around how to stay drunk on that wine of immediate passion, thus giving it the appearance of sobriety and objectivity.

All that to say, it is unfortunate that a very simple message, like the message that goodness might be a little harder to achieve, is forgotten or ignored in the face of its inability to reach great immediate effects. Heroism is possible if one is willing to wait, to study, and to collaborate with others on what it means to react to a situation.

I don’t mean to write some heavy-handed analysis of a popular film to show just how evil evil can be, but hopefully, how good good can be. I would not insult anyone’s intelligence by trying to prove merely that goodness can be provocative as well (though it certainly is) though I do hope that people would have a readier mind to scrutinize the merely ‘alluring’ in favor of a greater and more beneficial common ground between all of us.

My greatest sympathy and prayers go out to all the families who lost loved ones that day in July. Though it is hard to make good of one’s words in these situations, my hope would be that they would find the strength to take the path of heroes: never perfect, never without mistakes, but always working toward something better.

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2 Responses to “The Forgotten Message of Nolan’s Batman Series”

  1. starsfromheavens October 12, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    I’m actually quite amazed with your in-depth analysis on both heroes and villains in the making, though I did find some points way beyond my understanding. Nowadays we do find numerous productions that dwell deeper into villains’ characters — Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, Homeland, most superhero movies and TV series (Superman, Spidey, etc.) and so on. Yet, it is unfortunate indeed that the world is pretty much lacking from exposure to how heroes are made, how someone becomes the heroic character. The heroism of characters is mostly portrayed as innate, and its intricacy is often showcased rather briefly — much emphasis on actions instead of character development. All there is, writers have somewhat assumed that good people just exist; therefore perhaps for few audience, they are more intrigued to discover thrill in their lives by trying out the villain part. On the other hand, writers generally write from exaggerated or elaborated real-life stories; so… to discover which affects which — stories produce villains or real-life villains inspire stories — is like chicken and egg relationship. We can only hope that writers, directors, publishers, and producers imply more conscience and wisdom in reflecting on how their works affect humanity. I guess each of us plays our own unique role in shaping humanity as a whole, like a piece of jigsaw puzzle in an overall big picture.

    • Shane October 14, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

      Thank you. Interesting thoughts–Especially the chicken and the egg analogy. That’s something I’ve been curious about myself.

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